The actor Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs) once said that playing the crazy parts are easy…it’s the “normal” roles that are tough to pull off. At the time I saw that interview, I found the statement only moderately interesting, and, having no especial interest in acting, forgot about it. Recently however, that statement has made its way back into my awareness in relation to my writing.

When I wrote Sterling Bronson in Beautiful Monster, I had no trouble with him at all. I always found this a little worrisome…how could someone so heinous be so easy for me to write…what does that say about me and the workings of my mind? As I delve back into my previous novel, formerly known as The White Room though, I understand things a little differently.

When I’m writing an over-the-top character like Sterling Bronson, it’s easier for me and here’s why: he is extreme. When Sterling does something, he over-does it. If he wants something, he needs it. Whenever he reacts to something, he over-reacts to it. When I’m writing a “normal” person, though, it gets trickier.

I’m currently writing a semi-“normal” character named Cade Jacobi. He is a nineteen-year-old bookish type, with a naive, juvenile streak to him. What he wants more than anything is to be like his older brother. What he doesn’t see, of course, is that he is far better off than his brother, and that sometimes the greatest pain is wrapped in the prettiest packages. This is something Cade has to learn the hard way. Cade has his own personality and I’ve tried to keep him real, but unlike Sterling Bronson, I care if people like Cade. I worry that people need to like him, whereas, with Sterling, I never cared if he pissed people off. He was supposed to (and based on some of the letters we’ve received, he’s done a fine job! Ha!)

So while writing Cade, I find myself constantly toeing that thin line between keeping him real, and keeping him likable. Too often, in an attempt to write likable characters, writers populate their novels with cardboard cut-outs of real-life people who possess cookie-cutter kindness and whose only real flaws are that they trust too much, love too deeply, or give more than they can afford to. Just as no villain can be entirely without any soft spots, no hero is without his or her flaws, otherwise, it’s melodrama and it doesn’t feel real.

The solution, I’m finding out, is to simply “trust the process.” Let the character’s be themselves, likable or not, and just let them tell their story. As it is in the real world, no one can be liked by everyone. I believe this holds true for folks of the fictional persuasion as well. I hope people will like Cade, I really do, but if not, it’s not my business to worry about. I’m giving him my best effort and I’m maintaining his integrity; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. The real trouble with “normal” people is that they are layered; they are human (or close to it anyway), and this is what makes them interesting. They’re just a hell of a lot harder to write.

  1. Kim Justesen says:

    The thing about “normal” people is that – well – no one really is. Everyone has their insecurities, everyone has their fears, their loves, theirs dislikes. These are what make up the “layers” you referred to – and these are what make us interesting. We are each a conglomeration of experiences, emotions, insights, desires, and dreams. Hopefully, Cade will speak more clearly to you and if you are honest in dealing with him, readers will come to love him.

  2. Linda L. Bennett says:

    We all have our little quirks some more than others (like some authors I know). Just kidding! So what is normal? I hope they publish the ( The White Room) would love to read it too! Great blog by the way!

  3. Linda Anderson says:

    Very well said!!! You did such a good job with Sterling, I would have thought his type would have been the harder to write, but you have made a point. Normal people are a lot more complex. I can’t wait to read about Cade.

  4. Jarod says:

    I think you have the right idea in just trusting the process. I mean, I do my prewriting homework, but ultimately, I don’t know a character until he/she starts making decisions and reacting to stress. If that character has scruples, they’re revealed. If the character cares more about a given desire than the given consequence, that’s revealed. I think the feeling of normalcy (complexity) arises from seeing a character navigate all the many grey areas in life. Crazy characters (for me) have a lot more black and white and a real liberating lack of self-doubt. Plus, if a character is too “normal” I don’t really want to read about them. 🙂

  5. What I just love is that Buffalo Bill was played by Ted Levine, who is utterly unrecognizable (thank heaven) in his long-funning TV role, Chief Stottlemeyer, on Monk. I always wonder if he’s wearing nipple rings under that suit.

    Good post!

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